Monday, September 21, 2015

Penang's culling of stray dogs: Why the outrage?

The present outrage over the culling of stray dogs in Penang has not shown how "animal rights" can be defended consistently. Yes, it is emotionally offensive. But why so?

I think this emotional offense is enabled by the implied assumption that dogs are more precious than pigs and chicken. But again, why so?

On one hand, there are animal rights advocates who lobby for the protection of animals' natural habitat, and so humans must not intervene. For instance, they went the extent of advocating the killing of baby polar bear Knut when it was abandoned by its mother. By saving the bear, as they argued, we are intruding nature.

On the other hand, there are those who lobby for the protection of animals not according to their natural habitat but according to how we treat humans. These advocates argue that we must not only protect the animals, but we must treat them as if they are humans. We must clean, feed, and dress them as how we do to humans. Some animals are even better treated than humans. As one of the 50 animal lovers who gathered at Esplanade last night called the stray dogs her "babies" and "family", which is an obvious example of their attempt to "humanize" animals. This latter group disagrees with the former by questioning the "natural" way of things, with the world famous animal-rights philosopher Peter Singer dismisses it as "an error of reasoning in the assumption that because this process is natural it is right."

From a theological point of view, such outrage (which resembles the reaction against Yulin's dog meat festival) shows that we have lost the idea of human uniqueness in relation to animals. We talk so much about eco-balance, but we have no idea where the scale is tipping towards.

Due to this, we are vulnerable to either "naturalize" animals to the extent of completely allowing the cause of nature to take its place, or "humanize" animals to the extent of treating them as if they are humans even though our treatment contradicts their habitat.

One should be reminded of what Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Zizek calls the "radical ecology" which understands nature not as serene, balanced, and harmonious existence. Rather, nature is constantly in flux and subjected to intervention and manipulation.

If so, how then can we even begin to understand nature? This is the question that Oxford professor Alister McGrath asks, "How can we construct a philosophy based on nature, when nature has already been constructed by our philosophical ideas?" McGrath's own answer may not satisfy the secular or irreligious mind of the multi-cultural public as he approaches it from a religious point of view.

Nonetheless, it is clear that unless we have the answer to the question of "nature", we cannot simply and arbitrarily elevate one species (dog) over above others (pig, chicken, cow, lamb, etc).

Unfortunately, many are carried away by the emotional offenses they feel and lobby for and against things that they have yet to approach in a sensibly or reasonably robust manner.

It seems that animal lovers are contented to cry and shout at the Penang State government via social media, vigil, and press conference rather than to have civil discussion based on reason as humans should do.

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